Like parents all over the country I have spent countless hours over the last two years fretting about my child’s GCSEs. Too much study, not enough, are they coping, are they too laid back? Knowing a great deal about how the process works and having been through it many times from “the other side” doesn’t provide any insulation from these worries. I’ve proffered revision cards hopefully, made comforting hot chocolates, suggested timetables and study breaks - and now suddenly it’s all gone. So does that mean the last two years were wasted? I think the answer is obviously, and thankfully no.
This year’s exam candidates have a right to feel sad, they have been robbed of a rite of passage. The moment of intense academic drama when they open the exam paper and see if it is their best or worst imaginings that are being realised; the relief when the final exam ends and the long summer stretches before them offering complete freedom. While they will still have results to collect, the sweaty palmed envelope collection ritual of most years will be muted. Teenagers may feel anxious about their teachers awarding grades (and the exam board moderation end of this does feel murky right now), but they should take comfort from research conducted at King's College London suggesting these will be a robust and reliable measure of performance. However once past the initial shock there is still plenty to treasure in the GCSE and A Level years that doesn’t depend on proving themselves in the exam hall.
I am hugely grateful at this moment that my children are part of a school where examinations are a part of life, not the point of life. Where their time is also filled with sport, music, drama, friendship and learning how to live a good life. Thinking back over the last two years my son will remember the joy of making the First XV, debating competitions, helping at the Year 7 sleepover, his Duke of Edinburgh walk (sent back to do a lap of shame after a short cut) and last summer’s glorious BBQ lunches on the field.
Cast your mind back to your own school days, what comes to the surface? For me the exam hall is there, but in much brighter technicolour is time spent with friends, being frozen on a lacrosse field and picnics on the beach (don’t imagine sand, I come from Hampshire). School days are about learning how to live, not passing exams and each of us can help our children now find, and develop, what they are learning at Hill House.
What of the subjects that they took because they “had to”? The argument that learning, say, trigonometry was pointless as you will never use it in real life (possibly not but I am glad the person who made the spirit level app on my phone I used last week to hang shelves had a rudimentary grasp of it). Is learning ever wasted? I don’t believe so. At my highly traditional school we had to learn swathes of things by heart - I never expected knowing all the words of Jerusalem to come in handy filming a school assembly while in the middle of a global pandemic, but life is surprising (it’s a shame no one ever managed to teach me to carry a tune!) and if you ever want someone whose party trick is reciting “If” backwards then you know where to turn. More seriously though, learning teaches us how to learn; each newly acquired piece of information, with suitable expert guidance, becomes part of a mental schema better equipping us to tackle the next, and apparently unrelated learning task. We also need to experience a range of subjects in depth to understand where our passions lie. The biros that would have been picked up to answer exam papers could be perceived as a collection of atoms, an unsustainable piece of plastic ephemera or a tool that can be used to create both art and political and social unrest. Experiencing all of these in a broad and balanced curriculum helps us to discover where our passions lie. These are the things our learners can take from their studies and that they can carry through life.
Hopefully we can all be back in the school buildings soon, but regardless the learning can continue with all its glorious, strange and unexpected impacts on us all.